Ships, Steam and Innovation Case Study: An Indian shipbuilding dynasty

An Indian shipbuilding dynasty

Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia

Figure 2. Portrait of Jamsetjee Bomanjee oil on canvas, c.1830. Attributed to J. Dorman, based on an earlier engraving after an original miniature by Edward Nash. It was probably painted after the death of Jamsetjee Bomanjee to commemorate the shipbuilding accomplishments of both father and son.
Image courtesy of The Royal Asiatic Society. 

This family story begins with Lowjee Nusserwanjee (c.1700-1774) the great (x2) grandfather of Ardaseer Cursetjee. He was born at Siganpur near Surat in about 1700.  Many Parsis lived in this area, as in the late seventh century many fled from Persia in the wake of persecution, and were offered residence by the ruling Hindus of India, mainly in the area of Surat. Lowjee Nusserwanjee trained as a shipwright and was employed in the East India Company’s dockyard at Surat, which prior to 1735 was the principal dock, not only on that side of the peninsula, but also of all India. How Lowjee Nusserwanjee found himself in Bombay is explained at length in a report of 1810, written by the Superintendent of Marine, Mr T. Money for the Government of Bombay:

In that year [1735] Mr Dudley, the master-attendant, was sent by the Government of this Presidency to Surat to agree with the builder there, Dhanjibhai, to build a ship for the Honourable [East India] Company’s service to be called the Queen.  In the construction of this vessel Mr Dudley was so much pleased with the skill and exertions of the foreman, Lowjee Nussarwanjee, that after the launch the endeavoured to persuade him to proceed with some officers to Bombay, where the Government were desirous of establishing a building yard.[i] 

Lowjee Nusserwanjee refused to leave without his master’s consent, and when finally given he moved to Bombay in 1736 with a small team of shipbuilding artisans, including his brother.  In August 1740, on the death of Mr Dudley, Lowjee Nusserwanjee replaced him and was given the title Master Shipbuilder. On Lowjee’s death in 1774 he was succeeded as Master Builder by two of his sons Maneckjee Lowjee (1720-1792) and Bomanjee Lowjee (1722-1790) who jointly held the post. ManeckjeeLowjee married Rutanbai Shappurjee Khurshedjee and had six children Framjee (1749-1804), Nusserwanjee (1754-1817), Heerjibhoy (1764-1804), Rustomjee (1766-1812); and two daughters Jerbai and Awahbai.  When Maneckjee Lowjee died in 1792 his son Framjee Maneckjee (1749-1804) and his brother Bomanjee Lowjee’s son Jamsetjee Bomanjee (1756-1821) succeeded as third Master Shipbuilders. The period between 1812 and 1817 saw the family attain its greatest prestige as shipbuilders when sixteen men-of war were designed and built, and 40 more large ships.  Jamsetjee Bomanjee’s portrait shows him seated, wearing a shawl, the customary gift from representatives of the East India Company, at the launching of a new ship (see figures 2 and 3). In the portrait Jamsetjee Bomanjee holds a plan of the Minden launched in 1810, the first man-of-war to be built for the Royal Navy out of England. The Royal Navy recognised that ships could be built more cheaply in Bombay and teak, the local timber, was more durable than English oak.  Apart from some earlier Bombay-built ships that had subsequently transferred to the Royal Navy Service between 1800 and 1821 another eighteen ships were commissioned, including the Minden, the Cornwallis and the Wellesley, all third rates with 74 guns.


Figure 3. Double portrait of Jamsetjee Bomanjee (right) and his son, Nourojee Jamsetjee (left), oil on canvas, (H 603 mmW 873 mm) c.1830. Image courtesy of The Royal Asiatic Society.

It was in this period that Rustomjee (1766-1812), the writer’s great (x4) grandfather, was employed in the dockyard. He married firstly Meherbai Maneckjee Cowasjee Sorabjee  and they had one child, Cursetjee born in 1788, the writer’s (x3) grandfather.  Meherbai died in July 1794 and Rustomjee married secondly Awahbai alias Javanai Horm, who bore him two further children, Dinbai (?-1828) and Dhunjeebhoy  (1799-1854).  From 1801 Rustomjee was placed in charge of the Mazagaon Dock.  On his brother Framjee’s death he succeeded to the joint position of Master Builder, under Jamsetjee as Head Builder, until his death in 1812.

Jamsetjee continued as Master Builder until 1817, when he was succeeded in that post by his son Nowrojee Jamsetjee Wadia (1774-1860). The fifth Master Builder was Nowrojee’s nephew, Curstejee Rustomjee Wadia (1788-1863), the writer’s great (x3) grandfather.  He had joined the dockyard in 1799 at the age of eleven and, on the death in 1821 of his great uncle Jamsetjee Bomanjee, became the Second Builder. He married Jerbai Cowasjee Bomanjee Kabrajee and one of their fourchildren was Ardaseer Cursetjee.

 The sixth and seventh Master Builders were Jehangir Nowrojee (1821-1866) and Jamsetjee Dhunjibhoy (1829-1893). Jehangir succeeded in 1857-1866. He is notable here, as a cousin to Ardaseer Cursetjee, who had preceeded him to England in order to study ship construction.  In 1863  Jehangir, as  Master Builder, had been required to reduce staff and had persuaded family members Hirjeebhoy Merwanjee the First Assistant Builder, and Rustomjee Ardaseer Second Assistant Builder to join family companies that were benefitting from increasing trade with both England and the United States. On Jehangir’s death in 1866 there was only one other member of the Wadia family employed in the dockyard, Jamsetjee Dhunjibhoy, the Third Assistant Builder.  He had joined the dockyard aged 15 in 1844. His retirement in January 1885 brought to an end 150 years of Wadia connection as Master Builders.

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia (1808-1877): Steam and Innovation

 Ardaseer Cursetjee was brought up and educated in the service of the East India Company and followed in the family tradition of working at the Bombay Dockyard from the age of fourteen in 1822. In that year his uncle, Nowrojee Jamsetjee was the Master Builder, and Ardaseer Cursetjee’s father was employed as an Assistant Builder. By 1828 aged twenty Ardaseer Cursetjee had been placed in charge of the shipyard at Mazagaon, where he designed and supervised the construction of several fine vessels.


Figure 4. Ardaseer Cursetjee FRS, Chief Inspector of Machinery for the Honourable East India Company. (Wadia, The Bombay Dockyard). Image courtesy of Blair Southerden.

As R. K. Kochhar explains Ardaseer Cursetjee was, however, ‘more interested in steam machinery than ship-building’.[i] In 1820 he had built a small 1 HP engine and installed it at his premises for pumping water from a well. Fortunately his interest coincided with that of the Company.  They readily agreed to his request about the year 1831 to transfer him to the charge of Capt. F. McGillvray, the Mint engineer, for the purpose of devoting myself to the study of steam machinery and the foundry business. By 1830 commercial circles in Bombay were lobbying for the development of what was called the ‘overland route’ to Europe and Great Britain, via Suez.  This route would reduce the sea journey by 1,000 miles and would be good for business in Bombay.  Increasingly steamships were visiting India and requiring repairs, for which Bombay had neither adequate facilities nor the engineers to supervise them.

After transferring to the Mint, Ardaseer acquired a 10 HP steam engine from England which he installed in a boat of his own building, launched in 1833 and named the Indus, and was reported in the Bombay Courier as having been ‘built by a very promising young Parsi shipbuilder’. The Indus was the first private steamer built at Bombay, (and was preceded only by the Hugh Lindsay, built in 1829 for the East India Company by Nowrojee Jamsetjee, the Fourth Master Builder, and later purchased by the Bombay government).  This was ‘principally intended as a means of conveying instruction’ and its builder regularly invited people to study it in action.  The Bombay Courier reported that he ‘demonstrated to his countrymen the great advantage which might be derived from the introduction of steam as a means of irrigating garden land and improving agricultural resources of the country’.[ii]   In print Ardaseer Cursetjee acknowledged his debt to Captain F. MacGillvray who supervised him, and ‘his worthy assistant’ Captain Turner, ‘as those gentlemen gave me my first lesson upon steam’.[iii] 

His achievements did not go unnoticed and in 1833 he was made Assistant Builder at Mazagaon, ‘the office being expressly established for him on the recommendation of the Superintendent of Marine, Captain John Crawford’. By 1837 the Indian Navy (until 1830 the East India Company’s Bombay Marine) had made the policy decision to create an all-steam fleet. But even before the new technical direction of the dockyard was apparent, Ardaseer Cursetjee had taken the initiative to improve his knowledge and experience of steam power.

Ardaseer Cursetjee’s fascination with innovation was not confined to steam and its application to ships.  He is also credited with introducing photography and sewing machines to Bombay.  In 1834, aged twenty-six, he introduced gas as a fuel for domestic lighting into Bombay, ‘by lighting up my own house and garden, at my expense, and I exhibited the same gratuitously to the public, who came many hundreds of miles on purpose to witness this’.[iv]   In particular:

The Governor of Bombay, the Earl of Clare, came with his retinue to witness the demonstration.  A huge crowd thronged outside Ardaseer Wadia’s residence at Mazagaon, Bombay, and the Governor [of Bombay] could approach his demonstration only with difficulty. On concluding his appreciative inspection, the Governor awarded “an honorary dress” to symbolise his admiration of the young Parsi’s engenuity. As the Governor was on his way out, a flick of his fingers by Ardaseer Wadia signalled an instantaneous switching off the lights. A minute later the blazing glory was again switched on, and the throng outside responded with added amazement.

As the historian John Crowley has remarked ‘until the use of coal gas in the early nineteenth century [in Britain], the basic technology of lighting had remained the same from thousands of years before classical antiquity’.[v]  Within twenty years of gas lights being first demonstrated in Pall Mall, London in 1807 they had displaced oil lamps in most central districts.[vi]  Thanks to Ardaseer, Bombay was soon to benefit from this new light source.

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[i] R. K. Kochhar, ‘Ardaseer Cursetjee (1808-1877): The first Fellow of the Royal Society’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society, 47:1 (1993), pp. 33-47; R.W. Home, ‘The Royal Society and the Empire’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 56:3 and 57:1 (2002-3).

[ii] Ruttonjee Ardeshir Wadia, The Bombay Dockyard and the Wadia Master Builders, Bombay, 1955, p.331

[iii] Wadia, Diary of an Overland Journey from Bombay to England.

[iv] S. D. Mehta, The Cotton Mills of India 1854-1954 (Bombay: Textile Association, 1954), chapter 2.

[v] John E. Crowley, The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 69.

[vi] Celina Fox (ed.), London -World City 1800-1840 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 292.



[i] Dosabhai Framji Karaka, History of the Parsis, including their Manners Customs and Present Position, 2 vols (London, Macmillan, 1884), vol.1, chapter 13.